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Judge strikes down new ethics law

Missouri’s new ethics and campaign finance requirements were struck down Thursday by a judge who ruled they violated free-speech rights and a state constitutional prohibition on rolling multiple topics into a single piece of legislation.

The decision by Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green invalidates laws prohibiting the shuffling of money among political committees and requiring quicker reporting of contributions during the legislative session, among other things.

Attorney General Chris Koster said he plans to appeal the decision and wants the judge to suspend the ruling from taking effect in the meantime.

“Our suggestion is that people continue to follow the law as it was passed until the judgment becomes final,” said Koster spokeswoman Nanci Gonder.

The wide-ranging ethics legislation was passed on the final day of the 2010 legislative session after undergoing several top-to-bottom rewrites.

Besides the provisions about the public reporting of political contributions, the law also gives greater power to Missouri Ethics Commission to launch investigations and creates new crimes related to bribery, obstruction of ethics investigations and lobbyists’ failure to report their wining-and-dining expenses for state officials.

Another section of the bill requires that each lawmaker get his or her own key to the Capitol dome — an exclusive tourist destination otherwise off-limits to the public. Senate Bill 844 began as a simple bill allowing the Office of Administration to assist statewide officeholders in determining the best and lowest bid on contracts — a provision that was largely overshadowed in the final version.

Green ruled the bill violated the Missouri Constitution’s requirement that legislation address only a single subject that is clearly expressed in the title. The judge said the bill wrongly included multiple topics because its final title of “relating to ethics” did not cover its original provisions about state contracts nor the section about providing Capitol dome keys to lawmakers.

The judge struck down the entire bill except for the original portion about state contracts.

Green also ruled that a section prohibiting state-chartered banks from contributing money to political action committees violated free-speech rights.

The Missouri House passed legislation March 7 that would have repealed the ban on banks donating to PACs, but that bill has not passed the Senate yet.

The lawsuit was brought by Legends Bank, of Linn, which in the past has contributed thousands of dollars to banking industry political action committees. The bank’s attorney, Chuck Hatfield of Jefferson City, said his clients opposed several of the law’s restrictions.

“Everybody likes to talk about what we call the PAC-to-PAC transfers and claim they are money laundering,” Hatfield said. “There are obviously times when that process got abused, but there are lots of people who transfer money among PACs for very good reasons.”

During the 2008 election cycle, Hatfield created a political committee called the Economic Growth Council that channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to various political party committees, which in turn contributed money to Koster’s campaign for attorney general. An ethics complaint alleged Koster and Hatfield had laundered money through committees to get around campaign contribution limits that were in place at the time. But the case ended when the Ethics Commission fell one vote shy of the amount needed to take the complaint to a hearing.

Missouri’s campaign finance laws have undergone numerous makeovers in recent years. Legislators in 2006 passed a law repealing the state’s campaign contribution limits, effective in January 2007. But the state Supreme Court struck down that law following a lawsuit in which Hatfield also represented the plaintiff. Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature responded in 2008 by passing a new law repealing contribution limits. That law remains in place.

Supporters of unlimited contributions had argued that it would be easier to track donors, since there would be no need to funnel money in small amounts through various committees to get around limits. The 2010 law was intended, at least partly, to further restrict the funneling of money through various committees.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, who handled the legislation, acknowledged after the end of the 2010 session that it could face a legal challenge alleging it violated constitutional prohibitions against multiple subjects and changes to the original purpose of a bill.

Shields is no longer in the Legislature because of term limits. But Shields said he is hopeful the new batch of lawmakers can revive the bill.

“They could pass a new bill that essentially has all of these same elements in it, even if this one eventually loses at the Supreme Court level,” Shields said.

House Majority Leader Tim Jones, who handled the 2010 bill in that chamber, said he had concerns about banning money transfers among political committees and was not sure yet whether the Legislature would try to revive any or all of the 2010 provisions.

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